The health benefits of summer camp

 
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Remember camp? Camp was fun! Lets take a stroll back in time when we were around 10 years old and the days were filled with catching fireflies, hiking and jumping canon ball style into the local lake! Those summers of childhood may very well have been the best we ever had, but could it be that camp gave us more than just memories of campfires and smores? When listening to a recent episode of a very popular podcast, this American life, they were doing a piece on camp, interviewing young teenagers as they regaled their blissful alternate universe of camp land! I was struck  by the comments of these youngsters, “I look forward to camp all year, my friends back home just don’t get it, I live for camp”, what is it about camp that makes that experience so special, more than special even, dare I say transformational? 

 

Our closest resemblance to tribal living 

 
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Lets travel back, when our ancestors were walking through the untamed, untouched garden of eden that was once the Earth before civilization began. Back in prehistorical hunter and gatherer times,  people led nomadic lives in small tribes that were often in relation to other tribes in the region. Their days consisted of gathering food, essentially hiking and picking berries and plants to save for later, hunting for game that would also be saved for later, and creating household everyday things, such as clothing and baskets for carrying food and water. According to new anthropological findings their typical “work day” consisted of no more than 3-4 hours of “work” of gathering food or hunting and the rest of the time was spent with their tribe cooking, looking after children, story telling, or visiting other camps. Additionally their entire lively-hood was accomplished together as a close knit group, from gathering food, setting and striking camp to raising their children. As the old adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child. They formed intimate connections with each other, had no stress of upcoming deadlines by the end of the day or having to plan out their “schedule” down to the hour. The most recent research suggests, that tribal living was quite relaxing and leisurely the majority of the time. Not to say they didn’t have their own problems, like finding shelter in storms, starvation and tigers,  but compared to the average work day of a modern human there is much to be desired. 

    In camp you sleep in bunk beds in a room with other kids your age, stay up late trading gossip, laughing and talking. You grow close with this group, kids who go to camp every summer report how close bonds are with other kids at camp. They look forward to the days of sunshine, laughs and play. At camp, kids are always surrounded by their friends and counselors. They may have teams that they feel loyalty and pride for, just like tribes in hunter and gatherer times, their counselors may take on roles that the tribal elders once did. 

     Fast forward to now and take a step back and look at the average day of the modern human: the stress of raising a family or 2 kids or more on their own while working 40 plus hours a week to meet the financial demands of the day. We wake up and endure 8 or more hours of a stressful work where we demand a lot of concentration and resources from our bodies, we spend most of that time inside, away from natural sun light, we lead sedentary lives and at the end of the day numb ourselves through food and TV leaving little time for real social interaction and connection.

Some are so isolated and disconnected from true human intimacy  that entire industries are popping up to serve as a surrogate outlet for intimacy. Just take a look at the youth of Japan, the manga industry is booming as are cuddle cafes, host cafes, and hostess cafes. All are business that simulate being in a relationship charged by the hour. Where as in camp, though we may have been kids, there was very little stress, lots of physical activity in the sun, and above all else a strong sense of connection and safety in our environment.

 

Emotional bonds on our health 

 
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I’m sure its not front line news to discover that having a support system and strong emotional bonds are good for our health. Numerous studies support that people who have little or few social connections have greater risk for death, one study even shows that the risk for death doubles compared to people with strong social ties. Having a feeling that you are cared for and loved can sometimes be the greatest medicine. In our modern life our culture has grown more individualistic, where more people don’t have the time or energy to extend to their relationships which can have deadly affects.

Not to mention how often people move these days, as soon as you begin to build a social community around you, job offers arise and people are forced to relocate and start over again.  One study discovered the affect of marriage on health and found that people who were married were less likely to have complications with current health conditions compared to people who did not have partners. If family and social connection are still so powerful, imagine how powerful it would be if you had 50-100 people who you knew intamately from birth, who were there with you through every stage of life and would be there if you got sick or to help raise your baby. This is the kind of social connection that existed in hunter-gatherer tribes and still exists in pockets of human life: church communities, camp, small towns (think star hallow in Gilmore Girls). I think in a big way we crave this same kind of social connection and bonding that is rare to find in modern life. 

What camp has to teach us about our lives now 

 
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We can all take a lesson from our former experiences in camp. If we take a moment to really appreciate how wonderful those sun filled days were maybe we can try to bring that lighthearted laughter to our days NOW. For me, its a reminder to really nurture the strong relationships that I have built, to appreciate my friends and family and tell them as much as possible how important they are to me. To Ask for help when I feel that I need it and trust in our universal humanity that someone will lend a helping hand. 

 

Finally to not take life so seriously! That was one of the most wonderful things about camp, that carefree attitude of just being in the moment and enjoying your friends company, laughing and catching fireflies.

I think we can all try to take more moments to breath, watch sunsets, and catch fireflies. 

 

  • Berkman Lisa F, Breslow Lester. Health and Ways of Living: The Alameda County Study. New York: Oxford University Press; 1983.

  • Brummett Beverly H, Barefoot John C, Siegler Ilene C, Clapp-Channing Nancy E, Lytle Barbara L, Bosworth Hayden B, Williams Redford B, Mark Daniel B. Characteristics of Socially Isolated Patients with Coronary Artery Disease Who Are at Elevated Risk for Mortality. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2001;63:267–72. [PubMed]

  • Hughes Mary Elizabeth, Waite Linda J. Marital Biography and Health at Mid-Life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2009;50:344–58. [PMC free article] [PubMed]